Sunday, February 12, 2006

To PC or not to PC? Researching Walmart

What if your research gives the wrong answer?

Marlon Boarnet and I have collaborated on a few projects over the years, almost always for the right reasons. Possibly the most noticed outside the ivory tower are a couple of fairly straightforward reports on Walmart. The first considered how its entry into the grocery markets of southern California might affect wages; the second, summarized in the Autumn 2005 issue of JAPA (coauthored with Rutger's Dan Chatman and UCLA's Mike Manville), looked at how Walmart's entry into the SF Bay Area might affect both wages and prices, and the tools planners have to address this kind of tradeoff.

The short story is that Walmart is the world's largest grocer and not unionized, yet until last year had not entered California's mostly unionized grocery market. If you wonder how things might change when that prospect materializes, it didn't take that long. Both sides in the 4 month long southern California grocery strike in 2003/4 cited the prospect of Walmart's entry as the key factor stalling negotiations. They settled on a divisive two-tier pay structure, with post-strike hires facing significantly lower salaries/benefits. Walmart had yet to break ground for a California supercenter, the format selling groceries.

I mention all this to comment on the differences between advocacy research and research on topics primarily of interest to advocates. As mild-mannered, nice-guy searchers of truth, naive in the ways of the real world, we were blind-sided at how politicized these discussions quickly became. It was perhaps not surprising to see Walmart loudly claim that we were obviously in the pockets of the labor unions, whom had shared data and were extremely motivated to document what most certainly will be the huge hit they'll soon take. (It would have been far smarter of Walmart to give us a call and hand over the data that strengthened their position. Instead, their lawyers sent ominous, annoying letters and their PR folks commissioned bad, self-serving, counter-studies.) The unions, meanwhile, could not have been more disappointed with our conclusions that price savings are probably greater than wage losses, painful and concentrated though those may be. At least they didn't question our integrity in the press (that I've noticed).

These exchanges, and Dan's and my recent presentation at a tightly scripted national conference on Walmart research in DC (where I was permitted to ask one, and only one, question), were eye-opening. Their wide distribution and positive press notwithstanding, there are few supporters of these reports outside the research community, even though no one identified problems with our data, methods, or results. It just doesn't map well to their particular agenda of being absolutely for or against Walmart. I'm not sure there's a lesson here beyond doing things right the first time, whether you expect highly partisan critiques from both sides or not. One can hope the work moves the debate forward by establishing benchmark results and framing the issues. But when the attention comes and you can't control what they say or like, at least make sure they spell your name right.


Anonymous said...


I found your recent JAPA article and report on California grocery markets quite interesting. I'm a bit surprised to hear you report a lack of interest in your research on the topic.

I think the research community will soon be seeing more support for this type of research.

APA next month will be publishing my report "Meeting the Big-Box Challenge" as part of its Planning Advisory Service series.

APA was very interested in having the report focus go beyond the typical aesthetic regulatory strategies. The report includes references to your work and a discussion on the economics, including wages and benefits, of big box retail.

Hopefully, this report will help reach out to the practicing planners and educate them on many of the issues related to big box retail.

Keep up the interesting research.

Jennifer Evans-Cowley, PhD, AICP

randall crane said...

Thanks for your comment. I did not mean to imply there was a lack of interest in our research, only that we were mainly (at least lately) aware of displeasure with our results. The discussion is mainly framed as a matter of either/or, in which our work does not fit neatly. My point is not that we are unfairly criticized, since it is fair for people to be unhappy with the results, but only that has been an interesting experience. Not complaining, though.

Anonymous said...

As seems typical of economists, might I suggest you miss the point of WalMart opponents. I am sure it is true that the price reductions to consumers from WalMart groceries is more than the wage losses of unionized workers. However, the basis of opposition to WalMart entails much more than economics, such as integrity of communities, concern over local businesses being shut down, and so forth. Just because these things can't be quantified doesn't mean they are "irrational" or ill-considered.

randall crane said...

Dear anonymous,
I'm a planner, not an economist.

Our reports go into these other issues in some detail, none of which we consider irrational or ill-informed just because they cannot be easily quantified.

Our JAPA paper, and the post based on it, took the narrower focus of the wage/price tradeoff since it is playing a growing role in siting debates, in California especially, and the regulatory bases for addressing it are less clear.


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